Whether you’ve been a vegan for decades or you’re just now easing toward a more plant-based diet, you’ve likely had to deal with an uninvited question from well-meaning family and friends. The question of course is, “Where do you get your protein?” And the reason that question persists is due to a widespread belief that people need to eat animal protein in order to satisfy their nutritional needs and maintain their health.
If that common view is starting to put doubts in your head, take a deep breath and relax. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recently announced that vegetarian and vegan diets not only provide enough nutrition for adults and children—they can also even meet the nutritional needs of breastfeeding moms.1
Not only is relying on plants for your protein sufficient, it also brings a host of advantages. Plant-based diets that are rich in prebiotic fiber help maintain gut health, optimum weight, cardiovascular health, cellular health, and may even extend your lifespan.2,3,4,5 Eliminating or reducing animal foods in your diet also helps protect our planet by lowering your carbon footprint.6
Not all plants are protein powerhouses though—the trick is knowing which ones pack the biggest protein punch. Here’s a rundown of some of our favorite protein packed plant foods so you can rest assured that you’re getting all the protein you need, and have a quick, confident answer when a certain question arises.
1. Green Peas
Sweet little green peas have been a comforting side dish for ages, but they’ve been keeping a surprising secret. With nine grams of protein in every cup, peas contain even more protein than milk! And that’s not all. Pease are also a wonderful prebiotic, providing more than 25% of your recommended daily fiber intake, along with thiamine, folate, manganese, and vitamins A, C, and K.7
Peas are yummy all by themselves, cooked or raw, as a side dish or a snack. They also play well in lots of other dishes. Toss them into salads, rice, soups, casseroles, or pasta to add flavor and protein. For a very special aromatic main dish, saute green peas with sweet potatoes, onions, turmeric, cumin, and cardamom, and serve over fluffy brown basmati rice.
2. Organic Soy
Soybeans sometimes get a bad rap, but if they work for your unique body and health, those little beans can deliver 10-19 grams of protein in every serving, as well as calcium and iron. If you include soy in your diet though, be sure to only buy organic, since conventional soy is often genetically modified. It’s also best to eat soy (and all other foods!) in its whole or a minimally processed form, and to avoid isolates or heavily processed soy products.
Here are a few simple ways to enjoy soy:
- Edamame: These boiled or steamed immature soybeans are one of the most natural (and delicious) soy options. In addition to protein, edamame also contains lots of other nutrients including prebiotic fiber, folate, and vitamin K.8 Often served warm and lightly salted, these beans make a tasty appetizer or snack, but can also be added to soups or salads.
- Tempeh: This minimally processed soy food is made from cooked, fermented, mature soybeans that are pressed into patties. In addition to protein, it contains live probiotics, B vitamins, phosphorus, and magnesium.9 With its distinct nutty flavor, tempeh can be grilled, roasted, or sauteed as a rib-sticking meat substitute.
- Tofu: Also only minimally processed, tofu has a subtle taste that takes on the flavor of whatever you cook it with. Along with protein, it also contains calcium, iron, and lots of minerals.10 Try it in stir-fries, smoothies, veggie burger recipes, and sandwiches—or roast thick tofu slices in the oven with a coating of healthy oil and spices.
- Soymilk: This convenient, often protein-packed beverage requires some label reading because nutrition varies from brand to brand and, unfortunately, some brands contain loads of refined sugar and other unhealthy ingredients. Look for an organic brand with only a few natural ingredients and no added sugar.
3. Beans and Lentils
Beans may have been dubbed “the magical fruit” for less than delicate reasons, but with all the protein, prebiotic fiber, iron, potassium, and antioxidants you get in every bite, they truly live up to their nickname.
Which bean is best? Almost any bean you reach for provides lots of protein, so feel free to indulge in your favorites. Lentils, for example, have almost nine grams of protein per half cup serving, and chickpeas come in close at about seven protein grams.11,12
Whether you cook them into a spicy dal; blend some homemade hummus; mash them into vegan burger recipes; stir them into soups, salads, and pasta; or even bake them into healthy desserts, beans are an inexpensive and delicious way to add lots of plant protein to your diet.
If you thought fish was the only source of protein naturally found in lakes, think again. Superfood spirulina is a deep blue or green algae that grows in mineral-rich, alkaline lakes. At 65% protein by weight, each heaping tablespoon of spirulina contains about seven grams of protein—along with iron, magnesium, B12, chlorophyll, beta-carotene, phytonutrients, antioxidants, and essential amino acids (GLA and omegas 3, 6, & 9).With all that impressive nutrition, it’s no wonder that both NASA and the World Health Organization recommend consuming this lovely green plant food.13
Sprinkle spirulina into smoothies, hot cereals, salads, and all your favorite recipes for an extra burst of vegan protein and a very festive emerald hue.
5. Nutritional Yeast
With its yummy cheese-like flavor and tangy bite, nutritional yeast is a popular go-to staple food for vegans worldwide. But nutritional yeast (fondly dubbed “nooch” by enthusiasts), also naturally contains eight grams of complete protein in just two heaping tablespoonfuls—along with plenty of iron, B vitamins, zinc, selenium, and molybdenum.14
For a creamy plant-based cheese experience, blend nutritional yeast with soaked cashews and spread on warm toast. Or just sprinkle some nooch on pasta, salads, veggies, or popcorn as a substitute for grated cheese. Nutritional yeast also blends seamlessly into almost any savory recipe. Stir it into sauces, soups, mashed potatoes, and casseroles to bring some extra protein, richness, and zest to your table.
When shopping for nooch, be sure to choose only naturally nutritious, non-fortified nutritional yeast. Fortified varieties often contain synthetic vitamins and minerals that aren’t optimally utilized in the body.
Nuts have been a well-loved source of plant protein for generations—and there’s lots to love about them. They’re tasty, filling, and travel well without refrigeration. Almost all kinds of nuts provide a decent amount of protein, but peanuts (although technically a legume) and almonds deserve a special shout out with about 17 and 10 grams respectively per half-cup serving, as well as plenty of prebiotic fiber, vitamins, minerals, and healthy fat.15,16
Gobble nuts by the handful, sprinkle them over smoothie bowls and salads, or chop them finely to up the flavor and protein content of homemade veggie burgers and loafs. You can even craft original nut butter blends for memorable sandwiches and fruit toppings.
By their very nature, seeds are a very special class of food. That’s because every tiny seed on this earth is crammed full of all that’s needed to grow an entire plant—minus the water, of course. It’s that nutritional density that qualifies seeds as a top plant-based protein source, and thankfully, seeds also taste great.
- Hemp seeds have a mellow, nutty flavor and 10 grams of protein per ounce, along with omega-3s, vitamin E, iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc, and manganese.17 Try them in smoothies, parfaits, salads, and cereals.
- Chia seeds possess an unusual ability to absorb large amounts of water, which makes them not only very hydrating, but also perfect for creating creamy puddings and overnight oats. Each ounce contains 4.4 grams of protein as well as calcium, phosphorus, manganese, and omega-3s.18
- Pumpkin seeds contain 6.9 grams of protein per ounce, along with vitamin K, magnesium, phosphorus, manganese, and omega-3’s.19 They’re delicious by the handful or added to trail mix, homemade granola, and vegan burgers.
- Sunflower seeds offer 5.8 grams of protein per ounce, and also contain vitamin E, vitamin B6, folate, magnesium, manganese, and omega-3s.20 They’re great in veggie burger recipes, trail mix, seed butters, and salads.
8. Ancient Grains
Thousands of years ago, a number of protein-packed grains were revered for both their full-bodied flavors and healthful properties. Almost forgotten until recently, these ancient grains are regaining popularity—which means an exciting “new” source of plant protein is now easy to find on almost any grocer’s shelves.
If you’re gluten sensitive, you’ll be happy to know that some of these protein-rich grains are gluten-free, including:
- Quinoa, while technically a seed, contains eight grams of protein per cup.21 And it’s easy to enjoy quinoa all day long: Try it as a porridge with fruit for breakfast, in salads for lunch, and in place of rice or pasta with dinner.
- Teff, which comes from an annual grass, is also gluten free and contains almost 10 grams of protein per cup.22 Add it to baked goods and curries or casseroles where it can soak up the sauce.
- Amaranth has a warm, mellow flavor and provides over nine grams of protein per cup.23 Enjoy it as a porridge for breakfast, or stir in sauteed onions, peppers, shiitake mushrooms, olive oil, garlic, and sea salt for a savory side dish.
If gluten isn’t an issue for you, you’ll also want to include spelt in your plant protein rotation. This ancient variety of wheat is actually more digestible than the familiar modern type, and it contains almost 11 grams of protein in each cup.24 Use it as you would rice, with any vegetables and seasonings you’re craving.
With so many plant protein sources to choose from, it’s easy to build a fresh and varied meatless menu that provides all the protein you need to keep you feeling your best throughout your years. Now, if only getting people to stop asking where you get your protein were that easy…
1. Melina, V., Craig, W., & Levin, S. (2016). Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Vegetarian diets. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 116(12), 1970-1980.
2. Huang, R., Huang, C., Hu, F. B., & Chavarro, J. E. (2015). Vegetarian diets and weight reduction: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 31(1), 109-116.
3. Corrigendum: Effects of red meat, white meat, and nonmeat protein sources on atherogenic lipoprotein measures in the context of low compared with high saturated fat intake: a randomized controlled trial. Am J Clin Nutr 2019;110:24–33. (2019). The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 110(3), 783-783.
4. Risk in red meat? (2015, July 2). National Institutes of Health (NIH). https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/risk-red-meat
5. Madigan, M., & Karhu, E. (2018). The role of plant-based nutrition in cancer prevention. Journal of Unexplored Medical Data, 3(11), 9.
6. Lynch, H., Johnston, C., & Wharton, C. (2018). Plant-based diets: Considerations for environmental impact, protein quality, and exercise performance. Nutrients, 10(12), 1841.
7. Peas, green, cooked, boiled, drained, without salt nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/2521/2
8. Edamame, frozen, unprepared nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/vegetables-and-vegetable-products/9872/2
9. Tempeh nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4381/2
10. Tofu, raw, firm, prepared with calcium sulfate nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4467/2
11. Lentils, mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4338/2
12. Chickpeas (garbanzo beans, Bengal Gram), mature seeds, cooked, boiled, without salt nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4326/2
13. Bhan, M. K. (2003). Management of the severely malnourished child: Perspective from developing countries. BMJ, 326(7381), 146-151.
14. Nutritional yeast flakes (Kal) 2 tablespoons nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/custom/1323565/2
15. Peanuts, all types, dry-roasted, without salt nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/legumes-and-legume-products/4448/2
16. Nuts, almonds [Includes USDA commodity food A256, A264] nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3085/2
17. Hemp seeds nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/custom/1352377/1
18. Seeds, chia seeds, dried nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3061/2
19. Seeds, pumpkin and squash seed kernels, dried [pepitas] nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3066/2
20. Seeds, sunflower seed kernels, dried nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/nut-and-seed-products/3076/2
21. Quinoa. (2019, October 21). The Nutrition Source. https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/quinoa/
22. Teff, cooked nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10358/2
23. Amaranth grain, cooked nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10640/2
24. Spelt, cooked nutrition facts & calories. (n.d.). SELF Nutrition Data | Food Facts, Information & Calorie Calculator. https://nutritiondata.self.com/facts/cereal-grains-and-pasta/10356/2
Roberta Pescow is a writer at Hyperbiotics and proud mom of two amazing and unique young men. Natural wellness is a subject she’s passionate about, so she loves sharing information that helps others discover all the ways probiotics support glowing health and well-being. To learn more about how a healthy microbiome can enrich your life, subscribe to our newsletter.